Sale Sharks recently announced the signing of England and Wigan winger Josh Charnley, who will arrive in Salford at the end of this year’s Super League season, adding his name to a growing list of ‘code-crossers’ looking to succeed in both variations of the game.
Many players of differing positions and statures have attempted to bridge the gap between league and union in search of new challenges or the financial rewards the 15-a-side game can offer. Whilst a handful of players have succeeded in etching their names into the annals of rugby history, most do not. So what separates the successful converts from those less so?
No ‘code-crosser’ caused more fervour than Sam Burgess, who’s arrival in October 2014 was met with a media furore of anticipation and expectation. ‘Slammin’ Sam’s’ mesmeric rise through the Bath set-up and subsequently into England’s ill-fated World Cup team was surpassed only by his farcical scapegoating and consequent transformation from the saviour to villain of English rugby. Cue a one-way ticket to Sydney and the unfortunate saga drew to an abrupt close.
Few would argue Burgess was appallingly mismanaged, featuring as a flanker for club and a center for country is virtually unheard of, let alone for a newcomer to union. But no-one would contend that he ever reached the prodigious heights that made him a destructive force for the Rabbitohs. So if perhaps England rugby league’s most prolific talent of a generation couldn’t cut the mustard what chance does Charnley have?
At just 24 years of age, Charnley has switched codes with undoubtedly his best playing years still ahead of him. History will attest that the earlier players make the decision to change the greater their chance of succeeding in union. Sale’s own Jason Robinson crossed the great rugby divide at 25, with Chris Ashton, Owen Farrell and Kyle Eastmond all adopting the 15-a-side game much younger: 14, 22 and 20 respectively. There’s a coherent correlation between those bridging the gap too late in their careers; Lesley Vainikolo, Andy Farrell and Henry Paul were all over 25 when they made the switch, and all fell short of living up to their considerable reputations earned from rugby league.
Age isn’t the only trump card in the Wigan flier’s locker. Unlike Burgess, who uprooted his life, travelling 10,000 miles to join Bath two years ago, Charnley will be relocating a mere 36 minutes down the M6. Never underestimate the effects such environmental changes can have on players changing codes. Burgess stated on the eve of his return to South Sydney, “(I can’t wait) to return home to my family, who I have missed more than I could have imagined.”
Possessing excellent footwork, pace to burn and a prolific try scoring record: 142 tries in 152 games for the Warriors, including seven from seven in Super League this campaign, there’s every chance Charnley can prosper at the AJ Bell and in rugby union.
His added ability to kick for goal will provide Steve Diamond with another option alongside new signing AJ MacGinty after the departures of Danny Cipriani and Nick Macleod at the end of the season to Wasps and the Newport-Gwent Dragons respectively.
“Josh is a great signing, everyone I have spoken to rates him really highly”, Sale Director of Rugby Steve Diamond told the BBC.
“He’s got a bit of work to do on the conversion to playing rugby union. If he can work hard and make the transition, then we’ve got a gem on our hands.”
With a coherent plan and a solitary position for Charnley to make his own, there’s every reason the young man from Chorley can prosper in the Aviva Premiership next season.
Jack Yates, Pundit Arena
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